Female Genital Mutilation and the Influence of Traditional Cultural Practices Against Women: Experience From Ibibio, Akwa Ibom State of Nigeria

Female Genital Mutilation and the Influence of Traditional Cultural Practices Against Women: Experience From Ibibio, Akwa Ibom State of Nigeria

AniediAbasi Okon Ekpatt (University of Uyo, Nigeria)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2574-6.ch003
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Female circumcision is central to African traditional religion and entails transgression of fundamental rights. However, the rationale for female circumcision seems to be consistent in most African societies, and is based for the most part on myth, ignorance of biological and medical facts, religion, and culture. The thinking and argument in many communities is that the clitoris is perceived variously as repulsive, filthy, foul smelling, dangerous to the life of the emerging newborn, and hazardous to the health and potency of the husband. This study therefore is an attempt to respond to the thesis that despite the right to freedom of religion or belief, including its manifestations, the right of ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups to enjoy their culture, the religio-cultural ritual of female circumcision as a rite of passage in Africa is shrouded with some traditional practices that has reconfigured the moral basis of female circumcision.
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Evolving debates and discourses championed by Western feminist groups through the media of mass communication have revolved around a broad range of traditional cultural practices which appear incompatible with the health, well-being and human rights of both women and children (Essien, 2017). This is commonly termed as “harmful traditional practices” which include, but are not limited to, female circumcision, polygamy, forced and early child marriage, food taboos, wife sharing, wife inheritance, male child preference, widowhood rites and honour killings (Dorkenoo, 1995). However, it was the ritual practice called “Female Circumcision” (FC), also currently referred to as “Female Genital Mutilation” (FGM) that sparked off the most unsettling debates about women’s rights (Essien, 2017). In Africa, an individual’s adherence to group values such as FGC is a source of social capital and identity (Gruenbaum, 2001). This contrasts sharply with the individuality and autonomy that underpins the Western concept of human right. Within this framework, sex as a socially and culturally constituted reality (and a source of personal fulfillment) is de-emphasized and substituted for biological and social reproduction which is considered a source of power and agency (Mackie, 2001). Nonetheless, the use of the human rights framework feminist groups in its place tends to alienate the people, and harden their identities as evident by the increasing circumcision of young female meant to curb sexual promiscuity and stifle their resistance to the ritual practice at maturity (Rahman & Toubia, 2000).

Although female circumcision is a traditional worldwide practice, this ancient ritual is particularly prevalent in Africa, where approximately twenty-eight countries particularly in the sub-Saharan and Northeastern African communities are involved affecting an estimated 80 to 110 million women (WHO, 2008). The ritual is carried out mainly in relation to social, cultural and religious reasons. Because the practice influences such a substantial amount of women in Africa, the rest of the world has focused its attention on the continent attempting to solve the “female circumcision problem.” However, in order to develop an informed opinion about the practice, it is important to comprehend properly what female circumcision really are, the potential health risks that the practice involves, and the root of female circumcision in African traditional religion and culture. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is estimated that more than three million girls mainly in Africa are projected to be circumcised each year. Also, estimated prevalence rate of female circumcision in the 28 countries across Africa ranged from between 97.5% in Somalia to less than 1.5% in Uganda (Obermeyer, 2005).

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), female circumcision consist of all procedures ranging from partial to total removal of the external female genitalia without medical reasons (Obermeyer, 2005). Accordingly, they are classified into four groups namely: Type I within the African context, is the mildest form of female circumcision consisting of a ritualized marking of the female genitalia where the clitoris is pricked to draw a few drops of blood (Obermeyer, 2005). Type II group of surgeries involves the cutting of the clitoral hood or outer skin. It is a kind of partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora. This is the form Muslims refer to as sunna (Obermeryer, 2005). Type III is a more radical form of female circumcision. Under this procedure, the entire clitoris and all or part of the labia minora is removed with or without excision of part or all of prepuce (clitoridectomy). Type IV constitutes the most extreme form of female genital surgeries. It involve the narrowing the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal by cutting and repositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, and with or without removal of the clitoris. This is otherwise known as infibulations or the “pharaonic” type of female genital surgery (Mitike & Wakgari, 2009). There is yet another cluster of the practice involving all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical reasons, such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area (Bank et al, 2006).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Female Genital Cutting: This term is used by some medical professionals or international organisations to avoid the stigmatisation of practising communities. The connotation of this term is considered to be neutral. It seems, however, to be little used by the public and is seen by many as not accurately reflecting the gravity of the harm caused by the practice.

Female Genital Distortion: Female genital distortion indicates the corruption or damaging of the part of the vagina that the operation is conducted; the connotation of this term is usually viewed on the negative side, is mainly political. The term is rarely used by the public.

Purification and/or Ritual Cleanliness: This indicates and supports the reason why the practice is carried out. The idea is that the woman with the clitoris is believed to be unclean, while members of the community truly believe that the practice is the right thing to do for such a person, the positive connotation of these terms dismiss FGM's harmfulness and are considered a hindrance to a proper debate around the practice.

Female Circumcision: The term female circumcision is a term which creates confusion between two very distinct practices by drawing a parallel with male circumcision. The positive connotation of circumcision for males in some cultures does not reflect the harmful effects of the practice.

Excision: Excision is used while sometimes designating the practice as a whole as well as Type II, the connotation can be positive or negative according to the speaker. In some practising communities, “non-excised” girls are the ones who are socially mistreated.

Female Sexual Mutilation: This term female sexual mutilation broadens the notion of the purpose of female organs from the term “genital” to reflect sexual impairment. The term is probably more used by the World Health Organization,

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